Celtics keep Heat in their place

BOSTON -- It is foolhardy and premature to make NBA Statements at this early date. Proclamations carry weight in June, not February. Really, now. Why put so much emphasis on one game?

And yet, before the Miami Heat's Sunday matinee against the Boston Celtics, the Heat enthusiastically discussed utilizing this game as a measuring stick of their progress, their trust and their rightful place in the Eastern Conference hierarchy.

In the aftermath of a disappointing 85-82 loss to a severely undermanned Boston team that seemed ripe for a beatdown on its own floor, it was disingenuous to dismiss the results as scarcely having any meaning at all to LeBron James and his band of brothers.

"Just a loss, really," offered James.

"I know everybody wanted to really overstate this game and make it probably bigger than it was," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Actually this game was big -- for the Celtics. Their claim to the best record in the East had been vaporized in the wake of an uneven week that saw them drop three of four games and pile more casualties onto their injury cart. Jermaine O'Neal, Shaquille O'Neal, Semih Erden and Delonte West were joined by Marquis Daniels, Nate Robinson and now, potentially, Paul Pierce as incapacitated players battling some form of ailment.

"I was concerned we were literally running out of bodies," coach Doc Rivers conceded.

And yet, the first thing Rivers did when he arrived at the Garden was scribble on the locker-room board in bold letters, "No excuses."

Boston didn't need any. The Celtics missed 13 of their first 18 shots at the same juncture their opponent was shooting at a 62 percent clip, and trailed by only four. That's not a Statement, but it certainly has its merits as a serious gut check.

Miami is fond of talking about how it is blossoming as a basketball team, but the Heat aren't the only ones who are still growing.

With his team lacking its usual verve and energy, Rajon Rondo heard his coach call for some defensive pressure in the second half and took him literally. He jumped up in LeBron's grill and harassed him from end line to end line. Eventually LeBron figured out how to exploit the smaller, slighter Rondo, but by then the Celtics had built a 13-point advantage and the home crowd was fully engaged for the stretch run.

"It gave us life," Rivers explained.

Boston needed it on an afternoon in which Pierce was curiously passive and surprisingly ineffective. He milled around the perimeter and missed shots he normally made, finishing with a shocking goose egg (0-for-10). He later revealed that although his flu symptoms had subsided, he was attempting to shrug off a sprained hand and a left foot injury that will require an MRI on Monday.

Perhaps even more noteworthy than the Celtics upending the Heat without Pierce contributing a field goal was that six Boston players were in double figures, including major contributions from reserves Big Baby Davis (16) and Von Wafer (10).

Then there's Kendrick Perkins, who returned weeks ahead of schedule from major knee surgery and was supposed to ease his way back into the rotation by playing 18-20 minutes a night off the bench.

When just about every other "big" went down, the plan was altered. Perkins logged 30 minutes Sunday and made Miami pay for trapping on the Celtics' pick-and-roll sequences.

Perk confessed that both of his hamstrings are killing him, but added "I'm all right. They needed the minutes from me. Obviously I'm a little sore all over the place."

The Heat departed Boston with an 0-3 mark against their Eastern Conference rival, but did so knowing they nearly survived a subpar performance from Dwayne Wade (6 turnovers, 6-for-17 shooting, 1 ill-advised flagrant foul) and were within one wide-open Mike Miller 3-pointer of sending this game into overtime.

LeBron's critics will undoubtedly harp on his missed free throw in the final 12 seconds that would have tied the game, but his performance (22 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds) was part of the solution, not the problem.

So did the much-maligned Chris Bosh make a Statement by submitting 24 points on 8-of-11 shooting? Bosh hit a monster perimeter jumper to cut Miami's deficit to two with 1:30 to go, but two minutes earlier, in a critical Heat possession, Bosh refused to look at the basket with the shot clock dwindling to single digits and passed instead, contributing to a 24-second violation.

Bosh had a chance to tie it with 43 seconds to go when he was open from the left corner, but came up notably short. Maybe he will make the big shots next time. Maybe not. He is, we have been told, a work in progress, just like the rest of his talented team.

Spoelstra insists all it takes is one game to turn around a rivalry or a series, and points to Miami's 2006 run to the NBA title against Dallas after dropping Games 1 and 2 of the Finals.

He's right, of course. But you've got to find a way to get that first win, and this was a lost opportunity for the Heat.

"It's 'big brother' stuff," Wade said. "Everyone has been through it. MJ [Michael Jordan] went through it back in the day against the Pistons. You've got to get over the hump. We're getting closer and closer, but we're not there yet."

When the Heat finally beat the Celtics, does that count as a Statement?

In the meantime, Boston will limp along to the All-Star break knowing it stole a game it had no business winning, which is, when you think about it, is quite a statement in itself.

Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.